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Originally published Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Pro: Are online courses good for higher education?

The University of Washington's plan to offer online courses with Coursera creates more choices for students and potentially brings in revenue.

Special to The Times

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THE lecture at the centerpiece of higher education since Johannes Gutenberg's printing press in 1455 is about to get a massive upgrade.

The University of Washington is partnering with an elite group of top-tier schools to offer free online classes through Coursera. And it's only part of a larger change taking place in higher education.

The move to online classes is natural given the digitization of society. Before the printed books, students got their education by sitting in a classroom while the professor read to them from a handwritten book. That was the lesson -- taking dictation. The wide availability of books that Gutenberg ushered in brought in the lecture. Now the lecture is about to give way to the TV show.

If this sounds crass, in a way it may be. We are creating hierarchy in education with far-reaching implications.

Universities need the revenue that online courses will bring. The courses are free for now, but probably will not be in the near future. Like all of modern life, education is becoming increasingly monetized.

The college degree may soon be divided into three options: on-campus degree, hybrid on-campus/online degree or online degree. This gives more choices to students as well as to family budgets. If students still value direct interaction with professors, then they must pay for it. It's a pay-as-you-go model.

What young learners miss in direct contact with human professors, they will make up for by learning at their own speed and in the time of their own choosing. This will liberate us from the dreaded 8:30 a.m. lecture class.

It also forces professors to be much more tech savvy. And here we may find resistance from purists. They will argue, effectively and in many ways rightly, that education cannot be industrialized. It is an altogether different experience to teach someone face-to-face then via a software program and an online video.

But for many students who can't afford to attend a campus class -- because they work, or are far away, or simply don't see the need for it -- should they be cut off from quality education?

This is not a simple elitist-versus-populist argument. Education in any form, whether it's a children's cartoon or a lecture on astrophysics, is ultimately an elitist activity. Almost all of human history is about working and slaving away under a hot sun. Education is a privilege and it always will be.

What is different now is the manner in which education and learning take place. Technology today gives options to teaching that never existed before. The question is how best to use it.

How we train teachers must change as much as how we think of education and universities -- not simply as a set of nice brick buildings, but as central informational hubs that offer learning and knowledge and skills for anyone around the globe willing to absorb them.

The University of Washington is one of the first colleges to offer degrees with online courses. If this cheapens the nature of learning for some, it will usher others into the new learning future already here.

The big winners in the current educational revolution may be graduate schools, particularly Ph.D. programs, where online courses simply cannot replace the direct contact with professors. Students may opt for cheaper online undergraduate degrees and save their money for the face-to-face interaction that graduate school requires. This will increase demand for graduate degrees.

Some things will not shift: learning to truly think, to explore creatively, to reason reflectively, and to develop intellectually and ethically. You still have to pass the exams.

Taso Lagos has been involved in higher education since 1992 and blogs at www.studyingabroadingreece.com. He lives in Edmonds.

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